Monday, 24 April 2017

Chapter 6 – Manimeghalai

Sambuverayar’s daughter and Kandanmaran’s sister Manimeghalai was an energetic and spirited girl by nature who was cherished and loved by her family. The palace of Kadambur was her own royal court where she ruled over everyone like a queen. For many years, life was a happy dream until four months ago… something changed. Her family started pressuring her to agree to something that her heart couldn’t accept. Her pleas fell on deaf ears and but they seemed determined to have their way.

For the past three years, her brother Kandanmaran had been talking incessantly about his friend Vallavareyan Vandiya Devan. His wit, quick thinking, fiery temper, skill with the sword and spear were the many things that Kandanmaran would dwell upon incessantly. He would describe Vandiya Devan to be as handsome as Manmathan, as brave as Arjuna and as intelligent as Lord Krishna himself. He would often end the conversation by saying that ‘Vandiya Devan is the right groom for you. He is the only one who can keep a girl like you under his thumb’. Manimeghalai loved to hear him tease her with his friend but she would fight with her brother nonetheless.

“You are so full of talk. Why don’t you bring him here one day? Let me see how clever he really is.”

“We will see…” Kandamaran would say.

Before Vandiya Devan came to their Palace, Manimeghalai has spent many days and hours, daydreaming about him. Sometimes she would speak about him to her friends and companions too. While this went on for some time, unexpectedly, her brother’s plan to wed her to Vandiya Devan changed a few months ago. 

He started telling her that Vandiya Devan was an orphan with nary a home or land to his name. ‘He has nothing to offer… forget about him.’ Instead, he started hinting that she has a chance to become the Empress of the Kingdom. One day, he told her quite bluntly that she would be married to Prince Madhuranthakan (who was already married to Chinna Pazhuvetarayar’s daughter). He also told that Prince Madhuranthakan would be next Emperor of the Kingdom and she had a chance to be his queen consort and their progeny the future kings of the Chola dynasty. Her parents agreed and assented to everything that Kandanmaran proposed.

Manimeghalai couldn’t imagine herself as an Empress or as anybody else’s wife other than Vandiya Devan. Her brother’s words about Vandiya Devan remained etched in her heart and she struggled hard to forget all about him as her family demanded. She was also not very impressed with what she had heard about Prince Madhuranthakan - a coward who had never set foot on a battlefield. His piety and his declaration that he would become a Sanyasi and renounce the world too was well-known. Many were surprised when he did a sudden turnabout and married Chinna Pazhuvetarayar’s daughter after his public declaration. All this and more had not endeared him to Manimeghalai and she was determined not to wed this cowardly prince. 

Later, she also heard a bit of news that strengthened her resolve. A few months ago, when Periya Pazhuvetarayar had come to their palace, they were told that his younger queen Nandini Devi too had come along. She never visited the Anthapuram and nor did she meet her mother and greet them. This breach of etiquette was not only surprising but also became a point of conversation among the womenfolk to ridicule Periya Pazhuvetarayar and his jealous nature. As days passed on, the truth was revealed. Nandini Devi had not come to their palace at all. It was Prince Madhuranthakan who was brought there in a veiled palanquin in Nandini’s stead. That sealed her decision.

“I will never wed someone who hides his cowardly face within the veils of a palanquin. Never!’

Ironically, the day Prince Madhuranthakan had come hiding in the veiled palanquin, Kandanmaran’s friend too had come there. He had come to the Anthapuram and was there for a very short while but Manimeghalai was overcome by shyness. She stood behind the rest of the womenfolk and looked at him with bashful eyes. She couldn’t look up and see him face to face. Yet his twinkling eyes, handsome face and open smile created an everlasting impression in her young heart. He embodied everything that she had ever dreamed in a man and the few words that he spoke remained in her memory for long.

Meeting Vandiya Devan in flesh and blood and finding him much more than her own daydreams strengthened Manimeghalai’s resolve of not marrying anybody else, especially a coward like Madhuranthakan. She fought endlessly with Kandanmaran and ridiculed his attempt to marry her to Madhuranthakan and swore on the Gods that she would never agree to his plans.

Kandanmaran felt vexed and frustrated with his sister. At first, he tried to pacify her with sweet words. Later, he tried to sway her mind by saying, ‘Vandiya Devan is a friend turned enemy. He stabbed me in the back and left me to die. If you marry him, I will not hesitate to kill both of you…”

Then he would show the gaping wound on his back and eloquently describe how Nandini Devi had nursed him back to health.

“If you really love me, you will forget all about Vandiya Devan.”

After Manimeghalai heard this she did indeed change her heart. She loved her brother and knew that it would be impossible for her to wed the man who had tried to kill him. She tried to forget Vandiya Devan, yet the man would creep into her dreams and give her sleepless nights.

The chirpy girl who used to skip around the palace with boundless energy and enthusiasm had become a shadow of her old self. The old womenfolk in the palace hinted that this transformation was because she had become old enough to be married. Her companions and handmaidens teased her often and tried to cheer her up but in vain.

Though for the past few days, she was almost her old self because she had reason to believe that her parents and her brother had changed their mind about marrying her to Prince Madhuranthakan. She also learned that they had decided to get her married to the Crown Prince, Aditya Karikalan.

Next, to Prince Madhuranthakan, Aditya Karikalan was almost a giant in the people’s opinion. His bravery the glorious victories on the battlefield were well known to all. Added to that he was the Crown Prince of the Chola Kingdom, the heir apparent of a dynasty that was celebrated for its glorious legacy. 

Kings far and wide would happily give away the hands of their daughters to this Prince, wouldn’t they? 

Yet the Prince had shied away from marriage for various reasons so long. When she heard rumours that her parents were considering offering her hand in marriage to the Crown Prince she was excited and relieved.

When she learned that their palace would be used as a seat of power to broker peace between Aditya Karikalan and the Pazhuvur clan, she almost became her old self and was excited to play the hostess to such esteemed guests. When she learned that Periya Pazhuvetarayar would be bringing along his queen (and this time for real), her curiosity knew no bounds. She knew that Nandini Devi was instrumental in saving her brother’s life. Kandanmaran’s new-found eloquence about Nandini’s beauty, grace and intelligence made Manimeghalai all the more curious to meet her. She also knew that Nandini was responsible for the peace talks that were to happen soon and that it was her idea to wed her to the Crown Prince. Kandanmaran wanted his sister to become Nandini’s companion and friend during their visit at the palace and learn courtly behaviour and etiquette from her. Manimeghalai had no objections to this scheme. That was another reason for her enthusiasm.

The past week saw her overseeing the arrangements for the guest rooms. She stayed up late checking the palace wing that has been allocated to the Prince and his entourage and the Pazhuvur clan. Most importantly, she would often visit the chambers that have been made ready for the Pazhuvur queen to ensure it didn’t lack in material comforts. Her scrutiny vexed her servants and handmaidens who were made to clean and decorate the rooms again and again.

She also scrutinised the chambers that were allocated for the Crown Prince.

Someone called Parthibendra Pallavan was also accompanying the Prince it seems. God knows who that is? These days, one can’t be sure when someone will change. That Vandiya Devan too was once a part of Aditya Karikalan’s entourage. If only he didn’t turn out to be such a traitor, he too could have come here along with the Crown Prince.

Thus ran her thoughts and though she tried to keep herself engaged with the novelty of playing the hostess, she couldn’t forget her brother’s friend.

Periya Pazhuvetarayar and his queen were expected to arrive that night, therefore, late in the evening, Manimeghalai found herself back in the guest wing scrutinising the servants as they made things ready. As she walked through the chamber, she stood for a while in front of the ornate large mirror that was kept there. She looked at herself rather objectively and then decided that she was indeed attractive. Just when she had decided to move, she noticed that there was another face along with hers in the mirror. It was the face of a person that had tormented her in many dreams.  She couldn’t help but scream.

The next instant, the other face disappeared and only hers was seen in the mirror.

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Chapter 5 – The Underground Passage

After entering the secret underground passage at the Ayyanar Temple, Vandiya Devan walked for a while in the dark. A faint light was seen from the entrance of the tunnel through which he had entered and that gave him the confidence to venture further into the darkness. After taking a few steps, he heard a rumbling sound of a lever being turned and the tunnel entrance closed. The underground passage became so dark that Vandiya Devan became disoriented.

His first thoughts were of the resolution that he took not so long ago -- about not getting involved in things that do not concern his mission.

Why did I get into this tunnel now? My mission was to reach Aditya Karikalar as soon as possible and stop him from coming to Kadambur… then what am I doing here instead? Why do I act so rashly? When will I learn?

He slowly traced his way back to the tunnel entrance and tried to find the lever that would open it but the darkness that had enveloped the place suffocated him from all directions. He could hear faint voices too and surmised that some more people might have come to the Temple, which was probably why Edupankari was lighting all those lamps. Ravidasan’s gang might have come there to meet with Edupankari… then it would be dangerous to try and escape from the tunnel now.

Why did they come here? What are they planning?

Thankfully the Vaishnavan would be there to keep an eye on them.

Why should I wait here until they leave? I probably fall unconscious before I can escape from here. Instead, why not explore this underground tunnel. It might be useful in future to learn where it leads.

After deciding thus, he turned around started walking forward again. The ground was rough and was filled with stones. He surmised that the tunnel might lead him to Kadambur Palace. The bigger question was where in the Palace would it lead him? Most palaces had tunnels such as these built in the women’s anthapuram. During times of peril or war, the womenfolk would use such escape routes to save their honour from their enemies. That apart, they would also use these underground tunnels to hoard their treasures. So it might lead him towards the treasure chamber of the Sambuverayar clan. Nandini had aided the Ravidasan gang to loot the treasure of Cholas from the Dark Palace and Edupankari is probably doing the same with Sambuverayar too.

But why would they want to loot the treasure now, especially when Aditya Karikalan is expected at the Palace? What if they have another motive?

He remembered the coronation drama that had occurred at Thirupurambayam forest and Nandini wielding the sword that was etched with the Pandya royal emblem of Fish. His body shivered when he remembered the scene.

They have no interest in Sambuverayar’s treasure. They are here for a bigger fish obviously.

They have a more dangerous motive and that’s why they are using this tunnel to gain entrance into the Palace.

It is important that I find what lies at the end of the tunnel because it would help me thwart their plans.

He walked slowly feeling his way through the walls. Though it had been just a few minutes since he entered the tunnel, he felt as though he had been inside for more than an hour. He wondered how long the tunnel would be and tried to calculate the distance between the Palace and the Bamboo forest. At the outset, it seemed too vast a distance but then he and the Nambi had wandered through many alleys and streets before they got to the outskirts of the town. Maybe it was not that far a distance after all. If someone were to take an aim through the forest at the palace, the arrow would travel a straight path… that meant he was probably near the palace if not inside it.

Even as he thought that a gush of fresh air came through a hidden crevice in the tunnel and cheered him up. The stale air and the darkness that had enveloped the tunnel had him sweating profusely so much so that he would have fainted in a short while. The fresh air cleared his mind and he stood there for a while. He could hear faint voices of soldiers who probably were manning the fort. He could also see a very faint light from the crevice that was providing him with the fresh air. It had been built so cleverly that those who were on the ground above could not even see it even as they trod upon it!

Now that he had neared the Palace entrance, his destination too should be nearby. But where would the tunnel end, at the treasure chamber of Sambuverayars or at the Anthapuram? He wondered what he would find at the treasure chamber of Sambuverayars?

Will they have pots of gold coins… pearls, gems, diamonds, diadems? Will there be skeletons and skulls guarding his treasure? Will there be webs of a spider weaving their desire on men who chance upon the treasure?

Thinking thus, he kept walking forward. At a point, he stumbled and looked down. He could faintly discern a staircase leading upstairs. This is probably where the treasure chamber would be there or he might be entering the Anthapuram. If it happened to be the Anthapuram, then his plight would be doubly dangerous.

Ah! Kandanmaran’s sister… that dark complexioned beauty. She would be there! He had once thought that he would get married to her. He smiled thinking thus but sadly there was no one there to see his handsome face beaming. He wondered what would happen to the womenfolk if he appeared in their midst at the anthapuram.

What if they were bathing or changing their robes? How awkward it would be!

He laughed when he thought as he climbed the stairs. Next second, the laughter died in his throat as he stared at the sight that unfolded in front of him. He could see hundreds of eyes staring at him from the depths of darkness and they belonged to wild animals. Vandiya Devan took a step back in panic and then heard a sound behind. It was the sound of the tunnel closing!

That meant this chamber was open all this while and when I entered it closed its doors! While one part of his brain issued this warning to him, he stood frozen in that place unable to move.

Why are all these wild animals waiting for me here? Tigers, cheetahs, leopards, lions and lionesses, bears, jackals and wolves were standing there watching him silently! There were two elephants too standing majestically!

Why aren’t they moving? Why are they standing so still? Why don’t they pounce on me and prey on my flesh?

There was a giant big owl sitting on the ledge of the roof. Then he spotted a crocodile on the floor below and he wondered how the beast came to be lying amidst these animals.

That’s when the truth hit him and he exhaled with a relief. They were real wild animals for sure but have been dead and gone for many years. Their flesh has been preserved and their bodies have been stuffed with cloth and straw. Fascinated he touched the animals in wonder as if to make sure they were really dead.

He wondered what to do next.

Should I go on and find the entrance back into the tunnel or move on and find a way to exit this chamber?

The chamber had no visible door and as time ticked on he found himself getting angry and he berated himself for his rash decisions. He circulated the chamber by touching the wall everywhere hoping to find a lever to release him from this prison. At one place there was an elephant’s face with its trunk kept on the wall. In his anger, he twisted the elephant’s trunk saying, “Stupid elephant! It was you who got me into this trouble. Had you not moved at the Ayannar temple, I wouldn’t be here.”

The next instant a cavity opened on its own on the wall and Vandiya Devan astonished put his head inside to have a look around.

The first thing that he saw was a woman’s face. A beautiful dark-skinned woman with beautiful doe-like eyes was looking into a mirror! He was standing near the chamber’s door in such a way that his face was so close to her in the mirror. Almost as though he would kiss her!

The woman looked surprised and then shocked. The next instant a scream escaped her lips and Vandiya Devan panicked and took his hand of the elephant’s trunk and the chamber closed.

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Volume 1 - New Flood